By Matthew Hennessey
So many disturbing photographs have flickered across my computer screen lately. From the victims of Japan’s earthquake and nuclear disaster to the desperate refugees fleeing war in Libya to the flattened neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri, the spring of 2011 has been dominated by images of loss and pain.
So I was happily surprised recently to come across a photo of such powerful simplicity and genuine sweetness that it momentarily transported me out of the news cycle of devastation and catastrophe.
The picture is of a little boy with Down syndrome moments before receiving Holy Communion from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, Colorado. It was snapped by Denver Catholic Register photographer James Baca at the annual Archbishop’s Mass for Special Religious Education.
In the photo, the little boy’s hands are clasped in prayer. A woman, who may be his mother but may also be a teacher, gently guides him into the proper position to receive Our Lord. His suit seems a bit roomy, his glasses look as though they are having a hard time staying on his nose, and his deliberately-combed blonde hair sports a good, old-fashioned cowlick. Norman Rockwell couldn’t have done better.
But the real action in this photo is the kid’s face. It’s luminous. He is glowing with anticipation, in awe of this magnificent priest before him, and eager for the gift he is about to receive. His smile is as genuine, and as holy, as they come.
I saw the photo on Facebook, where I follow Chaput despite having no real connection to the Denver Archdiocese. I have always been impressed with his vocal commitment to the disabled, and to those with Down syndrome in particular. My daughter Magdalena has Down syndrome.
Seeing Chaput about to serve communion to this angelic little boy reminded me of a speech he gave in 2009 to the Phoenix (Arizona) Catholic Physician’s Guild. In it he said, “Every child with Down syndrome, every adult with special needs; in fact, every unwanted unborn child, every person who is poor, weak, abandoned or homeless—each one of these persons is an icon of God’s face and a vessel of His love.”
The boy with Down syndrome is truly an icon of God’s face, but there’s more to the photo than just the boy. A wheelchair is partially visible. There is a little girl in the background who, even slightly out of focus, looks like a grown-up version of my Magdalena. Behind her are a boy and another little girl with the unmistakable almond eyes that typify Down syndrome.
In investigating the picture, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the theme of this year’s Special Religious Education mass was “Gathered Around the Eucharistic Christ.” Father Roland Freeman, director of the program for the Archdiocese of Denver, explained the choice of theme. “The Eucharistic Christ enables us to love God in the way (Christ) loves the Father,” he said. “In this loving exchange we are opened to the experience that we are precious in God’s eyes.”
The photograph, and Father Freeman’s words, got me thinking: How many times have I approached the body, soul, and divinity of Christ in a state of distraction, without appropriate reverence, or with an impenitent heart? How many times have I failed to be mindful of the awesome presence of the Blessed Sacrament? How often have I failed to open my heart to the possibilities of this “loving exchange”?
Too many times, I’m ashamed to say. Far too many times.
But the moment between the boy and the Archbishop has given me a glimpse of what I can do about it. The photo has helped me to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18:3-5)
It never fails. Every time I think I have this tragic world figured out, something comes along to wise me up. Every time I give in to cynicism and despair, I remember that these innocent children are icons of God’s face and vessels of His love.
And then I remind myself: The news is not all bad.
From the June 2011 edition of Fairfield County Catholic, the monthly newspaper of the Diocese of Bridgeport.